LeBron James turns 33 on Saturday, and you don’t need advanced statistics to tell you that he is still playing amazingly.
Coach Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors went a bit further this week: “How many players are better in Year 15 than in Year 10? … Go down the list: Michael, Bird, Magic, Wilt, Kareem, Bill Russell. A lot of them didn’t even get to 15 years. Were any of them better in Year 15 than in Year 10? I can’t imagine.”
Athletes in most sports peak in their late 20s. But could Kerr’s contention be true? Could James actually be playing better at 33 than at 28?
Certainly James’ 15th year ranks at the very top among players so deep into their careers. James’ average of 27.8 points per game is the highest of any player in Year 15, surpassing Karl Malone’s 1999-00 season and Kobe Bryant in 2010-11.
It helps that James, like Bryant, started early, coming into the league straight from high school. It is better to be 33 during your 15th season than 35 or 37.
But even comparing him to those his own age, he comes out well. Of players at age 33, James’ 27.8 points a game would rank fifth all time, according to Basketball-Reference, behind Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, Alex English and Bryant.
Even compared to his younger competitors, James ranks near the top this year. He leads the league in field goals, is second in points to James Harden and, defying his age, is second in minutes played, behind 22-year-old Andrew Wiggins.
But saying he is actually better than five years ago is a stretch.
James’ career numbers show incredible consistency and longevity, though not necessarily improvement. Year after year, without fail, he has scored 25 to 30 points a game and pulled down six to eight rebounds.
The two statistics that really jump out in the last few years are 3-point shooting and assists. Like many NBA players, James has shot more from beyond the 3-point arc recently, and is set to average two 3-pointers a game this season for the first time. In return, he has cut back on taking long 2-point shots: Just 11 percent of his shots this season are 2s of more than 16 feet. He frequently took 25 percent of his shots from there five to 10 years ago.
As for assists, James is second in the league to Russell Westbrook, with a career-high 9.3 per game.
Though those two statistics seem to show clear improvement, in other areas James is not on an upward trajectory.
While he has been acknowledged as the best player in basketball for many years, he has seldom led the NBA in traditional categories such as scoring (just once). But he has been dominant in advanced stats that try to sum up all of a player’s contributions.
His peak in those catchall statistics, however, came in his 20s. Take Box Plus/Minus, which accumulates traditional box score stats to judge a player’s overall contributions offensively and defensively.
James led the league in this statistic every year from age 23 to 29, putting up figures as high as 13. James has five of the top 10 Box Plus/Minus seasons of all time. But the most recent of those was 2012-13.
His Box Plus/Minus this season is 10.5, ahead of his last three seasons. It’s the second-best figure in the league, behind Harden’s. Impressive, ageless, even sublime. But not actually better than five years ago.
Similar statistics such as value over replacement player and win shares show the same trends. James was the best player in the league from 2005 to 2013. But he may have slipped slightly from his peak.
On another point, Kerr is right. Jordan’s 15th season (which came late because of a break for baseball and a retirement) was clearly inferior to his 10th. So was Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Wilt Chamberlain and Russell did not make it to Season 15.
James has switched teams twice in his career, from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Miami Heat and back, which can change roles and sometimes statistics. And the opinion of a savvy observer like Kerr must be respected. But it also may be a bit overstated.
James is incredible, one of the best players at his age ever, maybe the best. But he isn’t actually better than he was five years ago, and probably is just a little behind.
(Do we need to add that every team in the NBA would take him in a heartbeat anyway?)